A friend whom I know to be really smart and really gifted at a lot of things recently sent me an email saying, “I want to be a writer; I want to write something. What do you think?” I get that question from people a lot, some of whom I know well, some of whom I’ve never met before who’ve just found me on the Internet, and usually I make an effort to be tactful and encouraging. I know what it’s like to have the ambition to write and need someone to give you a push. People were kind to me, and I feel an obligation to pass that kindness on. But in this particular instance, because I do know this person well and have a long history with them, I found myself being bluntly honest. For once, I found out what I really think about this oh-so-common question. This is what I wrote:
I think the only way to be a writer is do it. Don’t talk about it; don’t think about it; don’t plan it, research it, dream of how you’d spend your royalties or advertising revenue or plan your Nobel Speech. Just sit down every day and write on something.
The reason I haven’t been more responsive and supportive is not that I don’t think you can do it or that you shouldn’t do it or don’t have the talent for it – none of those things are true. But I’ve been doing it for more than 30 years now, every day, giving up whole big fun, profitable, meaningful, rewarding swaths of my life to do it. And like most writers I know, I’m in a major rough patch both artistically and financially. So when someone says “I want to be a writer; I love writing,” even when I know them like I know you, even when I know this isn’t the first time this ambition has occurred to them, even when I know they have raw talent, my first reflexive response is, “get a puppy first and see how that works out; then we’ll talk.” Because to me, saying that really is like a childless person with some babysitting experience in high school saying to a parent, “your kids are so cute; I love kids; I think I’m going to go to the kid pound and get a few; I think I’d be really good at it.”
If what you want to write is a novel, you need to write something with a beginning, middle, and an end that’s at least 50,000 words long. Then you have something to talk about. If you want to write a blog, figure out what your topic is, then write something on your blog about it on a regular schedule (every day if you have that much content, but regularly enough that you can build a readership that counts on it). Until you physically, actually, measurably do those things, you’re still just dreaming.
Unlike painting portraits and singing opera, everybody thinks they can be a writer because everybody went to grammar school and learned how to do the basics, the manual, mechanical action of writing. Some other people think they can be a writer somebody would want to read ’cause they’re really creative and tell good jokes and can think up really interesting stories. But that isn’t writing; that’s being a fun date. The hard part of writing, the thing that makes it Writing as a profession, is the actual doing, the discipline of making yourself practice and get better even when you have no clue if you’ll ever get paid and secretly suspect you won’t. If you can’t do that, you can’t be a writer.
I hope my friend’s feelings aren’t hurt; I hope they write something awesome and shove it in my face to prove how serious they are. But with so much text being slathered on aspiring writers these days about how “the world needs your book,” describing the art of writing as a sort of self-actualization project that ought to be available to all, maybe it’s time for my inner Mean Girl to weigh in. Because while I would never tell anybody they couldn’t be a writer, calling yourself one and being one are two very different things, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you can get to the good stuff.